Listen to ‘Honeymoon Strong,’ by Don Campbell

SCARBOROUGH — For a musician with 30 years of experience, Don Campbell felt especially nervous before setting up at Kittery Trading Post.

This gig was routine: Play a few songs, spread a little joy and go home. But the pre-Christmas performance represented much more for Campbell, one of Maine’s best-known musicians.

It was his first public concert since open-heart surgery in late November. He had passed all the medical benchmarks in his recovery up to that point, but he needed to prove to himself that he could still play his guitar and sing for people.

“It was the first time getting back on the horse,” Campbell said. “It felt great.”

With that tune-up behind him, Campbell is ready to return to the life of a full-time working musician. He has resumed gigging at bars, restaurants and nightclubs around Portland, and he is preparing for a songwriters showcase concert at 7 p.m. Jan. 24 at Westbrook Performing Arts Center. He will share the bill with his buddies Dan Merrill and David Good. In February, he hits the road with his band for concerts in Florida.

Campbell, who turns 51 next month, is the Bob Marley of Maine country music. Just as Marley’s name is the first many Mainers cite as the state’s most recognized comedian, Campbell is the guy people talk about when they talk about Maine country music, although his music doesn’t fit easily into the country category. His songs cover a range of musical expressions, including rock, country, folk and Celtic.

Campbell plays 150 to 200 shows a year, and no gig is below him, which endears him to his fans. He performs at community events across Maine and is particularly supportive of veterans’ causes. He’ll do fancy concerts in big halls or casual gigs in the hallways of The Maine Mall – or Kittery Trading Post during the height of the Christmas rush, when shoppers may be more interested in free popcorn and candy canes than the guy with the guitar singing Christmas songs.

Campbell has released more than a dozen CDs and spent more than a decade in Nashville becoming a better writer and polished performer. He lives full-time in Scarborough after returning to Maine three years ago following the death of his father. He grew up here, and his mother lives nearby.

His heart problem was detected in the fall, about the time he released his latest CD, “The Dust Never Settles,” and began booking dates to promote it. Campbell’s primary care physician detected a worrisome heartbeat during a routine exam and referred him to a cardiologist.

Tests revealed a thoracic aortic aneurysm, which required surgery to replace a heart valve. He had the operation the day after Thanksgiving.

At the time of his diagnosis, he was playing 12 shows a week. “I had no symptoms. I felt great,” he said.

The operation was a wake-up call, he added – not so much about his lifestyle, but about the fragility and temporary nature of life. It made him realize how thankful he is to make a living playing music in a place he loves.

That realization caused him to commit fully to his recovery in order to stay as busy as possible in the year ahead.

In addition to his own songs, Campbell plays concerts that feature the music of the late Dan Fogelberg. Campbell was 15 years old when he heard a Fogelberg song for the first time. He was walking by an electronics store in The Maine Mall when he heard a Fogelberg song being used to promote a music player. The softness and range of Fogelberg’s voice, as well as the acoustic instrumentation, appealed to Campbell. Before leaving the mall that day, he went to the nearest record store and bought “Souvenirs.”

Although Campbell never knew Fogelberg, he looked up to him as a mentor.

After Fogelberg’s death in 2007, Campbell began playing concerts that feature Fogelberg’s music. Those concerts have become popular since he released a double-CD of Fogelberg music, “Kites to Fly,” in 2012. The Fogelberg concerts have helped him expand both his audience and his geographic reach.

Campbell works with the Fogelberg Foundation of Peoria, Illinois, which supports the late singer’s music and legacy. Although Fogelberg died in Maine, where he had a home, he was from Illinois.

Campbell also performs concerts for veterans and includes at least one patriotic song on most of his CDs. One of his most popular songs is “Red, White and Blue Heart,” which he wrote for the late Pat Tillman, the National Football League player who quit his NFL career to join the Army after the attacks on Sept. 11. He was killed in service.

Campbell’s father was a Marine.

“I appreciate his sacrifice and the sacrifices of all servicemen and women,” he said. “I think support of the veterans is an issue that crosses both sides of the political aisle. A lot of times, there’s a misconception that it’s only people on the right who support veterans. That’s not true,” he said, noting that he is an Independent.

His father influenced Campbell’s desire to pursue music. His dad played the fiddle and tapped his Canadian Maritime roots in his musical preferences. He also took Campbell to hear bands and singers in Portland before his son was old enough to get into bars.

Among those bands were Devonsquare and later Schooner Fare, acoustic groups that featured a range of music. Campbell gravitated toward Tom Dyhrberg, who had a weekly gig at the former Ground Round near the mall in South Portland.

Dyhrberg, who plays bass in Campbell’s band today, set up in the restaurant section, which meant that Campbell could order a pitcher of Coke and listen to music all night. He didn’t need his dad to help get him in the door.

“It was obvious he knew all the songs I was playing and was really into music big time,” Dyhrberg said. “He used to bug me to sing these Irish tunes that nobody else knew. He requested ‘Shoals of Herring’ every week.”

They became friendly, and it was Dyhrberg who encouraged Campbell to sing.

Later Dyhrberg was playing at a private party and asked Campbell, then 17 or 18, to sing with him.

“He got up there and sang ‘Take It Easy’ by the Eagles and never looked back,” Dyhrberg said.

“My line about Don Campbell has become a cliche, but it’s true,” he said. “Everybody sounds like a superstar when Don Campbell is singing with them. He’s very good on his own, but when he sings harmony or backs you up, he raises you to a new level because his musicality is so high. He makes everybody he plays with sound better.”

Steve Romanoff, another longtime Maine musician associated with both Devonsquare and Schooner Fare, has become much closer with Campbell in recent weeks. He had the same surgery as Campbell five years ago. A few days ago, he dropped off a book about the heart at Campbell’s house. They talked about their surgeries and recoveries, and the importance of music in each of their lives.

He encouraged Campbell to get back on stage as soon as he was ready.

“We’ve always said, once you get on stage, once you start singing and once you start playing, the rest of the world melts away. Any physical ailments you may have, any emotional issue you might be dealing with just evaporate,” Romanoff said.

Campbell is heeding that advice. His heart scare strengthened his commitment to music, he said.

“I have a saying that I prescribed for myself a long time ago: Evolve or dissolve,” Campbell said. “It’s a constant reminder to keep my writing and my art form fresh for me and ultimately for my listeners.”

Barring setbacks, 2015 will be a year of evolution, he said.